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The difficulty in reviewing a group hailed as “the saviors of rock and roll” by NME and the heirs to the Velvet Underground by almost every major music publication is separating the band’s hype from the sounds they emanate. The Strokes’ full-length album, Is This It, has yet to hit stores (the release date is Oct. 9), but the five New York city college dropouts are being given the proverbial jock ride by the press.
On the flip side, the number of times that I’ve heard the description, “the band that will save rock and roll” from record companies and magazines in the past year is quickly approaching infinity, and translates into a hollow gimmick to sell more records—platitudes are often the worst kind of compliment. But to reinforce the pre-existing hype, nostalgia has been hanging oppressively in air for a band whose musical roots include punk and brit-pop. Such a noble rock lineage evokes memories of music’s halcyon days where songs were not a product nor a soundtrack for a car commercial, but rather signified subversion and an affront to the establishment. Arguably, that time never existed and the Strokes are simply a cleverly marketed band that have struck a chord with music critics disaffected with the cookie-cutter teen sensations and the eviscerating rap-rock fusion. Still, responsibility for the promotional hyperbole lies not on the shoulders of the Strokes, but on those sensationalizing publications who feed the hype machine and want to be first the break “the next big movement.”
With the hoopla, the Strokes kicked off their U.S. tour in support of their upcoming album on Wednesday night at Axis to a sold-out crowd. After listening to their EP The Modern Age, the advance international relase of Is This It and then finally seeing them in flesh, it is clear that the Strokes are a live outfit. Their studio-recorded songs attempt to recreate the immediacy and anguish of Julian Casablancas’ vocals, the tight guitar riffs of Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi, the bouncy bass of Nikolai Fraiture and the aggressive drumming of Fabrizio Moretti. Even the band members’ names have a novel quality and are strangely fatalistic, as if they had already been written into the canon of rockstardom. Once on stage, they wasted no time opening with “The Modern Age.” Casablancas did forward rolls with a beer in his hand while the band raucously played the introduction. He then spent the rest of the show staggering around the stage shaking beer bottles and throwing them aside, causing foamic eruptions. He kicked over the microphone stand with abandon and drunkenly fell into the ground, but kept his gravelly-yet-golden voice on key. He even mumbled something incoherently about his mind being “fucked” because of the removal of the song “NYC Cops” from the upcoming album due to the recent tragedies in his hometown, but played it after some audience coaxing. The Strokes exuded the confidence of a highly established act, but with a contained unpredictability and a fiery intensity that is absent in seasoned rock veterans. There was visible delight as they extended chords with mastubatory strumming patterns, letting the audience feel every change in the music. The band’s set followed closely the track ordering off their new album with no frills or deviations to the tracks, and, to the surprise and dismay of many, but with my respect, no encores. The Strokes ripped through the set of pop-punk delights including crowd favorites “Last Nite,” “Someday” and “Hard to Explain.” To describe the music, of course, there are the already clichéd Velvet Underground comparisons, but I maintain that they sound like a darker, dirtier, more anxious and volatile version of Weezer. They have precise, sonically taut arrangements with undertones of straight-up 50s rock ‘n roll. Or think of it this way: If Rivers Cuomo is the guy you would bring home to your mother, Julian Casablancas is the guy who would steal your mom’s car and then sleep with your sister in the discomfort of the backseat while drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels. Or extrapolate from their self-description: Modern British pop and indie-rock tunes for filthy lushes.
Regardless of whether this group is an authentic throwback to the New York music scene of the late 70s or just living every arty New York kid’s fantasy—pretending to be Lou Reed and slumming through the bohemian world of the Lower East Side—the Strokes make exciting and brash music in spite of the bowel movements of an industry that produces and reproduces Christina Aguileras and Fred Dursts. It feels good to get something back every once in awhile, even at the cost of nostalgia or rock journalists taking the piss out of it.
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